Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Best of 2009

In my article I sound like I begrudge doing "Best of" lists but really I find the process extremely beneficial. I really enjoy revisiting (stimulating) work that I have already written about; I almost always find that a second reading throws up new insights. This was particularly the case this year with Colin Richards Parrot Parrot, which I think offers something new every time you write about it. I rushed my first review of his work: my mind was cluttered by all the other shows on during the Spring Art Tour and in usual fashion I had just an afternoon to do a write-up. I think that few readers grasp the limitations under which critics write – the short turn-around time, which doesn’t always produce the best results.
Before I give you my selection of the best 2009 exhibitions I would like to point out two important points: 1) Regrettably I didn’t get to Cape Town in 2009 so the absence of any Cape Town shows is no reflection on the quality of art shown in the Mother City 2) Interestingly, I only selected solo exhibitions; the standard of curating in this country remains uninspiring. Nevertheless in 2009 I did enjoy Storm and Liza’s Nation State at the Goodman (Us, curated by Njami and Malcolmness felt like a variation on the same theme) and Anthea Buys’ The Double Body, which showed at the UJ Gallery.

THERE IS a certain sense of futility if not naive arrogance attached to pronouncing some art products better than others. Intrinsically art is a contested field: as rapidly as definitive boundaries are erected to demarcate its character or purpose they are just as swiftly challenged and dismantled, ever widening and complicating the discipline. Within these fluctuating conditions works and ideas that are revered can just as easily be declared passé. Besides, how does one identify excellence in a field when those who challenge any criteria that may entail are prized for doing so? It is within these problematic and contradictory conditions that the art critic is forced to operate, constantly charting unmapped territory, committing our definitive pronouncements to paper, to history.

This year was a particularly bountiful year for the discerning art critic. While an economic recession might have seen some gallerists choosing to stick with tried-and-tested names, thus preventing unknowns from entering the local art circuit, three of the most exhilarating exhibitions were produced by artists who have yet to make a name for themselves: Mary Sibande, Vaughn Sadie and Alistair Whitton.

Sibande's Long Live The Dead Queen, which showed at gallery Momo in Joburg, was undoubtedly one of the hottest. Dressing up in a restyled domestic worker's uniform, Sibande would inevitably grab headlines; but there was substance behind the contentious images she created. Sibande didn't pose in any ordinary domestic worker's uniform. She transformed the outfit so that it encompassed the figure of a "madam" from a bygone era. In this way the fate of these two figures was inextricably bound to each other. It also allowed Sibande's discourse to be situated in the realm of fantasy, which proved the ideal context in which to unpack the politics of the madam/servant dichotomy without it degenerating into a clichéd tale of woe that would underpin the domestic worker's victimhood.